Friday, October 16, 2015

Assessing a College's "Value"

Any good liberal arts college will encourage students to understand that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. This key component of critical thinking is what explains why ice cream consumption does not cause drowning, even though both tend to increase at the same time of year - in the summer.

However, it seems that this principle is often being overlooked in evaluating the colleges our society relies on for teaching students how to think critically. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard provides in its rankings database, among other information, median earnings of graduates. A recent New York Times article notes that this promotes a causation-for-correlation confusion, and that a particular institution’s direct impact on future earnings cannot be assumed.

Confounding factors include admissions selectivity and the fact that students at expensive universities often come from privileged backgrounds, which also correlates with high earnings. Colleges also vary in their focus on particular fields, some of which are more high-paying than others, thereby impacting the average when earnings of graduates across fields are evaluated as a whole.

There are many ways to assess a college’s value. Graduate earnings are just one of them, and even if this is the variable used, it must be interpreted with great caution.

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